Educating Latinos: An NPR Special Report
A Five-Part Series on a Crisis in Education

audio icon Listen to Part 2 of the series, reported by NPR's Claudio Sanchez.

The U.S. census Bureau reports that the density of the number of limited English proficiency speakers in Arizona is relatively high.  For more data on limited English proficiency speakers.

"When you've been doing something for a long time, it's difficult, no matter what the research shows, to switch paths."

Tom Horne, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction

Dec. 2, 2002 -- Bilingual education is the dominant -- and the most divisive -- approach to teaching the 5 million children in this country who don't speak English fluently. The debate over bilingual education often has less to do with its merits or flaws as a teaching strategy, and more to do with the politics of language and culture in this country. Two years after Arizona voters banned bilingual education with the passage of Proposition 203, educators and parents are still bitterly divided. In part 2 of the series, NPR's Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez reports from Arizona. Sanchez's report is the second in a five-part series, "Educating Latinos," airing on consecutive Mondays on All Things Considered.

One year after the passage of Prop 203, 150,000 children were removed from bilingual education programs. The mostly Mexican-American students were placed into "English immersion" programs. This approach calls for intensive English language instruction, and is supposed to have children fluent in English within a year. California had been the only other state to make English immersion mandatory in 1998, with relative success. But in Arizona the transition was particularly rocky.

For example, not long after voters scrapped bilingual education, rumors began that children would be punished for speaking Spanish at school. Oscar Alfredo Morales and his wife Elizabeth asked that their daughter be placed back into a bilingual education program, after she came home crying from school after being denied lunch for her inability to ask for lunch in English. While the law allows such requests, the Morales family's request for a waiver was denied, with no explanation nor chance to appeal. The Morales family sued.

Tom Horne, Arizona's new Superintendent of Public Instruction, says that problems like the Morales experienced pale in comparison to the failures of the state's old bilingual education policy. For the past 30 years, schools in Arizona taught children in their native language, while slowly transitioning them into English. Horne says that policy was a mistake, and the new law allows him to take schools to court if they are not enforcing the ban on bilingual education, or putting children in bilingual programs without adequate screening. Horne claims the school district in Tucson is not making the new law clear.

Rebecca Montano, Assistant Superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, says, "We're very responsive to the law." However, she believes that the law is not working for everybody. Children are frustrated and teachers are struggling, too.

At Hollinger Elementary School, in a predominately Mexican-American part of Tucson, students in a kindergarten class are speaking Spanish, while teacher Marilyn McLure speaks to them only in English, even though she knows that they do not understand her. The veteran bilingual education teacher says they are gradually falling behind the few kids who have been allowed to stay in the bilingual program. The children in the bilingual education class are reading and writing in Spanish, but McLure says that delaying English is not as harmful as delaying reading and writing skills.

Arizona schools superintendent Tom Horne believes that most bilingual teachers are trying to do the right thing. However, he says, "When you've been doing something for a long time, it's difficult, no matter what the research shows, to switch paths." In 2004, Latino students will have to pass standardized tests in English, just like everybody else. If they do not pass, they will not graduate.

In Depth

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More Learn about all the stories in this series.

More Resources for Part 2 and the entire series.